Young Science: why HIV increases the risk of cancer

Simona Saluzzo has been interested in new drugs and immunotherapy since she studied medicine in Turin – the science involved was immediately fascinating to the Italian, as she explains to science.ORF.at: “There is just so much more to this field to to understand and learn. The potential is great, especially when it comes to diseases such as cancer.”

Young science on ORF sound

Young scientists are the focus of the “Young Science” series. The contributions can also be found on ORF Sound.

It was therefore already clear to Saluzzo in Turin that her desire to become a doctor was not enough. Eleven years ago she started a PhD study at the Medical University of Vienna in the field of immunology. After finishing and further research, she also followed her desire to become a doctor. The immunologist is currently in her specialist training at MedUni Vienna’s Department of Dermatology. “I’m very happy here, we have a really fantastic mix of basic research and clinical work in the hospital,” says Saluzzo.

Up to 34 times higher risk

For several years now, Saluzzo’s research work has focused on one topic in particular: the link between HIV infections and the increased risk of developing different types of cancer. “People who are infected with HIV are generally more likely to have skin and organ tumors,” explains the immunologist.

Saluzzo wanted to know more about it. Their later studies showed, among other things, that the risk of certain cancers increased particularly sharply with HIV. “It concerns, for example, anal or cervical cancer, which are also caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV).”

MedUni Vienna/feelimage

Simona Saluzzo investigates the link between HIV infection and cancer at the Vienna General Hospital

HPV has supposedly oncogenic potential – certain subtypes of the virus can therefore cause cancer. In addition to cervical and anal cancer, they are also linked to penile or oropharyngeal cancer. When HIV-infected men are exposed to the papilloma virus, their risk of these cancers increases 34-fold — and women six-fold.

HPV vaccination as prevention

To prevent this, protection against papillomaviruses can be provided as early as childhood. There is already a vaccine against HPV in schools – but it is still underused, Saluzzo says: “HPV is a virus that everyone who has sex gets at some point. In theory, all people fall into the potential risk group, which is why such a vaccination is absolutely necessary for all children.

Vaccination is generally important for girls to protect them against cervical cancer, among other things. According to Saluzzo, anal cancer mainly occurs in gay men, but vaccination in schools is also recommended for all boys. “Not just to prevent anal cancer, but in general to avoid infecting other people with the papilloma virus later on.”

Missing T cells due to HIV

Saluzzo has already explored part of why HIV leads to a greatly increased risk of cancer. In a December 2021 study, she and a research team found that the number of certain memory T cells in the skin continues to decline during HIV infection. “However, the cells are said to be important for the immunological protection against infections and tumor cells – thus also for the immune defense against the papillomaviruses,” explains Saluzzo.

“If you are sexually active and with different people or if you have high-risk contacts, you should be tested for HIV at least every three months,” advises the immunologist. The sooner an appropriate therapy is started, the more T cells are retained.

In March 2022, Saluzzo also received this year’s Egon Macher Prize for her research by the Dermatological Research Working Group.

look for mechanism

In addition to completing her residency training, Saluzzo is already learning more about how T cells work. “We have not yet found the mechanism that makes these cells important. So we are currently investigating uterine and anal cancer in otherwise healthy people and in people infected with HIV.” Saluzzo then wants to compare the results of both groups.

Even as a qualified specialist, Saluzzo would like to stay in Austria and combine clinical work in the hospital with basic research. With her research, the Italian wants to promote the development of new medicines and treatment options against cancer, infections, allergic reactions, metabolic diseases and much more.

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